How the player perceives the games narrative often depends on empathy (Topic)

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How the player perceives the games narrative often depends on empathy


How the player perceives the game's narrative often depends on empathy. Someone easily believes in what is happening in the game, accepts its reality and conventions. But I am sure that some players sometimes cannot perceive this, because they see inconsistencies. Or they get used to the role so much that they cannot perceive the actions of the character as their own, in the moments when control over him is taken from them. This is how various dissonances arise in the narrative of the games, which we will talk about.

I didn't do it because I wanted to

Why are dissonances in games so problematic? Their presence affects immersion. After all, two different solutions to a certain situation appear in our head, which contradict each other. What the hero does and what seems more logical to us.

As an example of such dissonances, you can recall many quick time events where we act to save our lives. In fact, we are told: press "E" several times or in time to fight off the enemy, otherwise you will die, and you will see the animation of your character's death. In this way, we are made to feel excitement. And in principle it works, but not always.


Quite often, the danger is not felt, although the situation looks exciting, you know what to do - press "E" or another key. Having a way out of the situation weakens the effect of the danger. You know that there is a way out, that everything is in order. And you have no way to act differently.

In parallel to this, I want to recall one of the endings of The Stanley Parable. Yes, I know that the game consists entirely of breaking the Storyteller's rules and you constantly make choices, but (spoilers ahead) the game has such an ending as "The ending without Stanley ".


In it, you enter the room and see the ringing phone. The narrator says to pick up the phone, and in principle you have no choice, because there is only you, a room and a telephone. If you pick up the phone, you get "Telephone Ending" and everything will look as it should. However, when the situation seems hopeless, you may notice that the phone has a cord.

It is not highlighted, nondescript, no hint will be displayed if you approach it, but you can pull it out and get the "Ending without Stanley". You need to apply mindfulness and logic to make this decision. And that's an ingenious design approach. After all, I get the impression that I outwitted the game, I myself thought of pulling out the cord and got out of a hopeless situation. The same thing happens inside the game, the Narrator is at a loss, and he suddenly realizes that Stanley is us, the man at the computer, who broke his game.

Yes, the developer figured it out, but we pulled out the cord at will, and not "because of the plot." But such examples are few, and the root of dissonance is in the narrative.

I want to be due

There are two types of storytelling. The first - through the network and situations, and the second - through the player. In the first case, thanks to the dialogues, the setting and the characters, we can tell what the game is about. For example, Dying Light is a zombie game, Skyrim is a game about fighting dragons and exploring the world. Such projects have a staging in them, so it is easier for us to tell what we are playing.


Storytelling through the player is, for example, strategy, sports and online games. And here there is more emphasis on the fact that the story becomes more personal for the player. You can remember how you captured cities in Total War and how you built your story.


However, both of these narratives, while using different methods, pursue one thing - a good story, or an opportunity to build one. A good story is achieved when its narrative aligns with the goals of the player, that is, when he himself wants to do what he has to do (as in the ending from Stanley). And when our decision leads to in-game absurdity or confusion, dissonances arise. There are three of them.

Human-narrative dissonance

One of the most controversial, as many gamers often do not notice it. It represents a conflict between plot and gameplay. Roughly speaking, we see a story where a character in cut-scenes shows sentimentality towards an animal, cries out of grief, in short, shows his humanity. And then the gameplay begins, we take control of a character who, for example, has just lost his mother and is heartbroken (if you believe the cut scene), get into the car, turn on classical music and start knocking passers-by under it, simultaneously throwing grenades at them.

The man who coined the term, Clint Hawking, a former creative director at LucasArts, first mentioned him in a criticism of Bioshock. Clint says that the main message of the game is self-denial for the benefit of others. At the same time, the hero behaves selfishly throughout the game. Yes, you can say that you have passed Bioshock and all this is nonsense, there was no such thing, and if it was, then the devil with him the game is philosophical and beautiful. And wake up, in part, right.

However, there are other more convincing examples:

  • Prototype - Alex Mercer, infected with a super virus, is raised from the dead, and tries to understand what happened to him and who killed him. In parallel with this, he discovers superpowers in himself. The plot revolves around the fact that he regains his memory and, as a result, saves Manhattan from a nuclear strike. Alex's main enemies are mutants, Black Watch soldiers and the military, who want to destroy the city because of the virus, and without evacuating healthy people. But under our control, Alex can become a killing machine and destroy packs of civilians. The plot does not give him that reason, but we can do it because we want to.


  • The Witcher 3 - the game begins with Geralt looking for Yennefer, who may be pursued by the Wild Hunt, later we start looking for Ciri in the same tense atmosphere. Every minute counts, stop, what is it? A quest about a grandma and a frying pan? We must do it! Wow, how many quests are there, and which map is big, you need to explore it all! Although the game makes us understand that your beloved girl and daughter are in danger, at the same time it helps us forget about it. It also happens in the game when you end a love story with Yennefer, where she is the love of your whole life, but this does not prevent Geralt, both in the plot and simply, sleeping with other women. Yes, we can say that this choice is strictly on our shoulders, whether to make a traitor out of him for the sake of an interesting bed scene or not, but Geralt himself is somehow not against it, though recently realized that he could not live without Ian.


  • Tomb Raider (2013) is another striking classic example. Lara kills the deer with difficulty and with an apology to eat it, a little later she hardly survives the first murder, and after 20 minutes she, like a death machine, exterminates the inhabitants of the island in droves in various ways.


  • MGSV: Phantom Pain - everyone around calls your partner Silent a great sniper. In the cut-scene, she hits the head of a supersonic fighter pilot from a rifle. And so you take her on a mission and she either misses or shoots at all. In the meantime, she's aiming, you are already killing a couple of people with your sniper rifle yourself.


Why is this happening? It's all about such a thing as "Delayed disbelief" - this is just the aforementioned ability to accept certain game conventions, for example, that sitting around the corner your hero will restore health, that aliens from another planet speak English (because voice acting) and so on. Games today are more realistic and similar to our world, so it becomes more difficult for us to accept their conventions. When we see in the heroes who seem to us alive and worked out any troubles, we no longer believe in history.

Identity dissonance

Unlike books, where we are told a story, and movies, where everything is shown to us, in games we are the main observer who explores everything himself and projects the plot through himself. We become those who go through situations, control the character, and then we reach the cut-scene and our hero begins to do everything himself without our decisions. This raises the question: so who are we in the game? We are a passive observer or a superintelligence that controls the actions of this hero, who? We cannot fully identify ourselves with the character, which means we cannot say that he is us.


This interferes with immersion and reduces the importance of the player's actions.

Dissonance between gameplay and cutscenes

Here the conflict does not come from the fact that we are deprived of choice in cut-scenes, not allowing us to feel like a hero, but on the contrary, opportunities are taken away from us or our skills are completely nullified.

Imagine that you are fighting a tough boss and have already lost a couple of times. You control your movements, remember how best to act, choose a strategy and pay for a mistake by starting over. And then the cut-scene begins, where your hero performs some super cool action that you cannot do during gameplay (and it is clear why show you what you already saw) and fantastically finishes the enemy. That is, control is taken away from you during the climax, depriving you of victory as a reward.

This is primarily a rhythm error. The narration is interrupted and because of this, there is some discomfort. If movies are continuous narratives that know exactly what they are, then games are a little different. Today they are in a transitional phase where gameplay and cut scenes, that is, movies and games, most often coexist.

As an example, people still love Half Life 2 because it is continuous and you are always in control of Gordon. Moreover, he is silent, and the story becomes more personal. Yes, this is not ideal, because you are still thrust into different situations to move the plot, but this is much better than cut-scenes.



I cannot say that game dissonances greatly spoil the enjoyment of the game. They are an eyesore to some and sometimes make it difficult to associate themselves with the hero. The problem is that the bar for realism is raised and it is more difficult for us to put up with unreal things when they try to show us the opposite. In the future, games are likely to simply take on a different form of storytelling, where we won't be told how to play properly or take control of us.


We are also opening the heading "Game design in details" with this publication, where we will continue to consider the features of building games.

The Topic of Article: How the player perceives the games narrative often depends on empathy.
Author: Jake Pinkman